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Purple Heart Project Seeks to Provide Veterans With Access to Dermatologic Care


Jorge Garcia-Zuazaga, MD, MBA, FAAD, FACMS, discusses Apex Dermatology's Purple Heart Project.

Jorge Garcia-Zuazaga, MD, MBA, FAAD, FACMS, is a Mohs surgeon and the founder of Apex Dermatology and Skin Surgery Center in Northeast Ohio.

Garcia-Zuazaga is also a former flight surgeon for a Marine squadron, leading him to combine his passions for military service and skin health via the creation of the Purple Heart Project, an initiative aimed at supporting skin health in veterans with severe wounds.

Garcia-Zuazaga recently spoke with Dermatology Times to discuss the Purple Heart Project and its efforts in providing this patient population with access to dermatologic care.

"Usually on Veterans Day, around the Marine Corps birthday, it's a big time where we go out there and remind people that we're here for that," he said. "But it really is a whole year type of thing. We don't just do it on only one day."


Jorge Garcia-Zuazaga, MD, MBA, FAAD, FACMS: My name is Jorge Garcia-Zuazaga. I am a Mohs surgeon, and I'm the founder of Apex Dermatology and Skin Surgery Center here in the Northeast Ohio area.

Dermatology Times: What is the Purple Heart Project, and what are its main goals?

Garcia-Zuazaga: This started way back probably 10 years ago, when I founded Apex. I was looking for a community project to do that kind of blended my interest in dermatology and skin cancer but at the same time, my military service. Before I did dermatology, I was a flight surgeon for a Marine F-18 squadron. I did that for about 4 years, and so we bonded, and I had a lot of great experiences. I owe a lot of what I am today to the military service that I've done.

I was thinking about something that could resonate with me and the community. Then years later, the Boston Marathon bombing, there was some type of group [a plastic surgery group or medical group] that, assisted in some of those burn-wounded folks. And then I was like, "Maybe they can do something with scars." And then I started thinking more deep about it, and I thought, in dermatology, we're blessed that we connect with our patients, and the patient opens up to us, and scars tell their story. A lot of the folks in the military, the veterans, those scars go a lot deeper than the skin. Some some of them have PTSD and deal with other mental health issues. I was thinking, "Well, maybe I can do something that can help them feel better about themselves. Maybe I can get their mind clearer, or maybe get them back into the game, get them back into their community." That's kind of how it started, and it's really kind of started as just me, just grassroots, just me talking to my patients. I do a lot of VA care, and I connect with a lot of my patients. And basically, that's how we started now.

Over the years, it's developed into what it is now, which is a little bit more organized. We decided to kind of put it together more like a formal program, where the veterans can log into our website at ApexSkin.com/PurpleHeartProject and basically find the information there. Really, this is not a program for somebody that has a little mini scar on the hand. This is really for somebody that has a traumatic scar or wounded from battle. We assess them; we have a panel of our providers that are going to look at them, and they have to submit information. I talk to the veterans, and I do a lot of it on my own free time.

And then we evaluate scars, because sometimes in dermatology, we can treat scars. Some scars, you can use with lasers, sometimes we can do other things, sometimes you can't help. It's more of an education thing that we do, and then we make the treatment plan, what's needed. So it's all complimentary to the vet, and it's our way really to give back to the community and also honor the vets that sacrificed a lot for our country. So that's kind of how we started, and now it's a cooler program, because more people kind of know about it. In fact, hopefully, this interview will maybe raise some awareness or somebody that's out there, and they want to do something similar. I'm happy to help with that.

Dermatology Times: How have your personal experiences shaped your commitment to the Purple Heart project?

Garcia-Zuazaga: For me, it was always all about having a purpose. At Apex, we're a big fan of having a mission or a purpose. That way, we are part of a bigger group. You want to be part of a winning team, usually. And if you're just doing dermatology to do dermatology, punch in and punch out, you can get burnt out very quickly. For us in our group, it's more about trying to rally behind a mission. Our mission an Apex Dermatology is transforming lives through healthy skin, and I really feel that the Purple Heart Project really goes right into that purpose, right on target. It's part of our DNA. We want to transform lives, and what better way of transforming lives than helping somebody who's wounded, and maybe is depressed or maybe has PTSD, and maybe feeling a little bit better about themselves, and maybe understand, "Hey. You know what? I need to seek some help. I'm not alone here. We're going to continue with our life."

For us, that's really the whole point of the project, and sometimes we can't help them. Sometimes we say, "Hey, listen, I can't help you here. You need a plastic surgeon. You need large reconstructions." But sometimes we can, and sometimes we make a little bit of an impact. And if we can do one person, then I feel great. We continue to do that.

In our community, we still are pretty much grassroots. We're not really putting a big banner here: "Hey, this is what we're doing. We're so great." People know how to find us. I have my patients and they say, "Hey, I'm going to have my cousin [come to you]. He was in Iraq. He had a wound." So that's kind of how I find our patients. We do a lot of community service here. Usually on Veterans Day, around the Marine Corps birthday, it's a big time where we go out there and remind people that we're here for that. But it really is a whole year type of thing. It's a whole year thing. We don't just do it only one day.

I don't really have a sense of how much of an impact this has had in our community, but I can tell you that is really touching when I have a patient that we connect, and they say, "Listen, thanks Doc. You really helped me do this," or I see them send me a postcard or a Christmas card and say, "Hey, I'm working here now." It's one of those things that we continue our communication and touch base. That's why I went into medicine. I went into medicine to help people and to make an impact, and that's my way of doing it.

Dermatology Times: How do you hope the Purple Heart Project will expand or evolve over time?

Garcia-Zuazaga: In terms of expanding this project, we've had a couple of people from other states call me up and say, "Hey, listen, how do you do that? I'm interested in helping in something like that." And I'm an open book; I give them my information, I give them how I started it. We've had people from other states sending, "Hey, do you accept donations for that project?" We're not set up for that, at least not yet. I'm always happy to show people how we do it here, so that they can replicate it over there. But really, what it takes is somebody that really has a passion for helping people. You put in your time.

In terms of how dermatologists can impact the veteran community, I would say that most of us are public servants. We do skin cancer screenings already. They do that, or they volunteer their time, or they give a lecture. So I think raising awareness of not just skin cancer, but anything else that can happen for veterans is important. Sometimes, you may be the first line for them [veterans] to see you because they had a skin cancer, and maybe you need to say, "Hey, listen, are you up to date with your age appropriate cancer screenings? Do you need a colonoscopy?" That's what we do. Just because we're dermatologists, it doesn't mean that I'm only going to see that mole you have your back. You have to treat the patient.

I think in this day and age, a lot of dermatologists are very busy. It can be very easy to just stay on your lane and spend 5 minutes with the patient and move on. But I think what makes our specialty a great one is that we recognize internal disease in the outside. Just by us spending the extra 5 minutes to say, "Oh, yeah, that could be lupus," or "We'll send you to rheumatology to see if you have something." So I think just raising awareness of that, because a lot of the vets, you know, they're in areas where there are some environmental factors that sometimes you're exposed to, a lot of our vets talk about Agent Orange back when in the Vietnam War era. Candidly, I had a buddy of mine from my squadron, he was 50 years old, and he just passed from colon cancer. There's a lot of awareness now in people in the aviation community to get earlier colon cancer screening, because you are getting exposed to radiation in that jet.

Again, just paying attention and understanding that the vets are a special group of people that one time in their lifetime they volunteered to give their life for this country, and I think that has a lot of weight, especially in this day and age when the world is how it is. It's a cool thing that we do, and I encourage anybody that's doing derm to do that, too.

[Transcript has been edited for clarity.]

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